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No Sex

Asked to speak with a group of young women interested in STEM careers about what it was like to break into tech as a women oh-so-many years ago, I offered a few of my essays on that fraught subject to begin a dialogue.  The response was “Too much sex.  We are just interested in the work itself.”

My response was a total agreement.  It was way too sexual.  That was the big problem when women dared to suggest that we could do work available only to men.  Everything got to be gender-charged in a hurry.  In those days, it was being female that incited most of the problems. 

It reminds me of a dastardly job interview where after the interviewer and I were finished talking and rose to leave the office, he stood to reveal his zipper down, and underwear askew, though he was oblivious.  Whatever had he been doing behind his desk as he spoke at length with a female job applicant?  I asked that we wait a moment and requested that he tuck and zip before leaving the office.  He looked down, flushed red, and grabbed his crotch.  Yes, he was being much too sexual, pleasuring himself at my expense, while I spoke earnestly about my years of working as an engineer in various corporations, asking to be considered for serious work at the one he represented.  I was not a sex worker, but he had used me as if I were.  I left, happy to have learned—before signing any employment contract—that job was not for me.

Most job interviews were at least respectful if not serious.  In those days, I was often told that no woman was appropriate to the task, and would leave quietly.  What good would it do to fuss?  But there came a time when the law of the land caught up with all that.  I applied for an advertised position as Manufacturing Engineer at Murdock Machine and Manufacturing Company in Dallas.  The interviewer led me across the machine shop floor where catcalls approved my shapely legs.  He explained that as a woman I would never be able to deal with those bawdy workers and their technical problems.  He asked me if I could type, suggesting that if only I could type he would put me to work in the contract department.  I thanked him and left.  Then I drove to the EEOC where I sued his manly outfit and won a $60,000 payout plus a job offer.  The EEOC found the man they hired to be far less qualified.  I declined their job offer but gladly accepted their money, smiling all the way to the bank.

One of the beautiful things I helped improve for today’s young ladies presenting themselves as engineering applicants is an expectation of being taken seriously.  They deserve that, as did I, but I had to work very hard to achieve it.  While today’s sexual harassment is more subtle and sophisticated, it is still a problem in this millenium’s workplace.  Though there is no doubt that the young women applying for today’s STEM positions are worthy competitors, it is still a man’s world.  A woman’s place in it must still be fought for and won.

The young ladies puzzled about my early work history are correct.  Engineering is most assuredly not about sex.  But if I reconstructed my early mis-adventures, castrating the gender angst that often accrued to them, it would excise the irony that made them so compelling.  Worse still—it wouldn’t be true.

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The Letter

My last letter from Judy was written from her hospital bed.  She explained how Wesson had beaten her—again—this time breaking three ribs and both bones of a forearm.  That arm was in a cast, her left one, a fortunate break since that left her good right arm capable of scratching out the letter.  She explained that Wesson was finally history.  As soon as she got better she would go see her lawyer and change her will.  She planned to leave her entire estate to me and cut Wesson out completely.  Of course she would be divorcing him, at long last.  Judy had lost count of how many times she had suffered his fractures and contusions.  She had long ago explained about how it was impossible to operate a serious business without Wesson to sign papers.  In 1963 Texas, women were just barely viable as persons. 

MacNeil’s Fashion Corner, an upscale ladies ready-to-wear emporium, so recently expanded to a newer grander venue was her personal creation, with Wesson doing nothing but serving as a front so it could function legally.  No matter how profitable her enterprise, whenever she needed to borrow money from the bank for product or real-estate expansion, after she had negotiated the terms of the agreement and shaken hands with the bank president, her husband was required to appear and make it shimmer legally in the Lone Star State.  Wesson R. MacNeil, not Jewel J. MacNeil, sealed every contract.

I shuddered, sensing the pain she must have been suffering and worried that he might do even worse when she returned home, still hurting.  Judy had emphysema, a result of all those many years of puff, puff, puffing on the cigarettes that she bought economically by the carton.  Judy wouldn’t be Judy without a dirty weed hanging from her lips.  There was no empathy from me on that score.  I had no idea how the nicotine pleasured her and felt only guilt despising a stupid habit that was surely killing her. 

It was only a few days after receiving the letter that my phone rang.  I grabbed it to hear Uncle CJ advising me of the worst.  Judy had returned home to heal and was found dead the very next morning.  CJ, as her eldest brother, was notified before noon by a Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputy.  Wesson claimed no knowledge of what had happened, but her pillow was found on the floor, not underneath her head.  The Medical Examiner certified emphysema to be the probable cause of death.  Respiratory phlegm smeared onto the pillow might have been collected as she was smothered by a violent attacker, or it could have been from fighting to breathe her last due to a terminal illness.  There was no knowing.  With no obvious proof or motive, who could say?

I was speechless, my head swimming.  I thanked Uncle CJ for letting me know and hung up the receiver.  I retrieved her letter from my dresser drawer and read through it again.  Of course Wesson had killed her.  Maybe I should send the letter with its postmarked envelope to CJ so he could take it to the Sheriff and file charges.  Maybe I should go to Texas myself and fight for her in person.  But whatever could I actually do?  I determined to keep the letter, the last memory of my dear Aunt who had loved me enough to give me a home and had intended even to provide for my future.  I would wait awhile and decide after thinking it through.

As tears chased each other down my cheeks I shuddered, imagining Judy smothered by her own pillow, under the fists of Wesson, my old nemesis.  What if he decided to kill me too?  Schoolwork had me already buried, preparing for college finals, and I couldn’t bring Judy back to life, no matter what I did.

Weeks went by, and when I answered the phone and again heard Uncle CJ’s drawl crawling out of the receiver, he explained that Wesson had married one of his neighbors only two months after Judy’s funeral.  That was a solid motive for wanting his wife dead in the ground.  I mentioned my recent letter from her, but CJ seemed depressed and distracted, just wanting to reach out to somebody who also had loved his sister.  We commiserated awhile, said our goodbyes, and hung up.

Months later I decided to look for the letter, but couldn’t find it.  It was nowhere—nowhere at all.  How could I possibly have lost it?  I’d been puzzling over why I had been thinking somebody else would avenge her death.  It was surely my job, and I had failed her.  She was too young to die—only fifty-five.  But then, there was no use going to Texas and raisin’ a ruckus, even if I scared up the money for a ticket.  Who would believe me anyhow?

Even all these many years later, whenever I poke about among my old papers, I always wonder if I might somehow turn up that fateful letter.  If ever I do, I will head for Dallas, even if I have to ride the dogs.  I need to find that Sheriff’s successor and fold that missive firmly into his hand.  I’ll explain that in 1963 I was just a stupid kid who didn’t know enough to step up when it was my turn to make things right.  Of course in 2021 Wesson is long dead, and his punishment is no longer up to me. 

Sure enough, an Internet lookup showed that Wesson Richardson MacNeil breathed for seventeen more years until 1980, and then he died.  He had to live all those many years with the guilty knowledge that he was a murderer, and murder has no statute of limitations—even in an oddball jurisdiction like Dallas County.  Of course a man like Wesson isn’t capable of guilt. Even so, the world needs to learn what happened to Jewel Josephine Tyson so she can rest in peace.  MacNeil might be a moniker gleefully discarded, her maiden name of Tyson reassumed.  It was interesting to notice the photo of her headstone posted online says only “Daughter.”  No mention of “Loving Wife” was inscribed to grace the headstone of this long married woman who had suffered so much at the hands of Wesson Richardson MacNeil.  Perhaps it would have cost money better spent for his upcoming nuptials.

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There is no final exit so demeaning as being nibbled to death by a duck.  Why might that be?  I may be on the verge of discovering the answer to that age-old question.  I seem to be haunted by ducks, mallard ducks specifically, and worry that when I die, my afterlife will continue to be the object of some specter duck’s incessant nattering haunt.

For me it all started when I was two and found an Easter duckling in my basket along with the colored eggs and jelly beans.  It was my daddy’s doing.  He loved me more than I deserved since I was a fountain of misbehavior if my mommy was to be believed.  I loved that duck.  It was soft and yellow, and very dear.  He was little; I was big.  I wanted to speak with him but was uncertain about how.  My animal books said that cows go moo, dogs go woof, and ducks go quack.  My duck wouldn’t quack.  He was a bad duck.  I determined to make him quack so he would be a good duck.  I worried about how best to influence him toward behaving properly.  When the answer came to me in a flash of glorious insight, I set the duck on the ground, put a board on top of him, and stood on the board.  He would surely quack.  But he didn’t.

That memory came charging back into consciousness yesterday when I locked horns with Melissa Shrimplin, the program manager at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) where I am spending my days learning how to be a happy healthy senior as I devolve into decrepitude.  There is much to be learned at the J, and I am determined to get it figured out, in spite of myself.

Things were going as well as could be expected, given my complex provenance, and Melissa’s creative programming efforts were exemplary.  Covid appeared to be at bay, and oldsters were returning as their confidence in vaccination status gave them the will to socialize.  That was when the ducks showed up—again.  It was a mother mallard trailing a clutch of cuties dressed in speckled down.  She, with her newly hatched brood, was trapped inside the atrium of the JCC and she wanted out.  She had flown in and could surely fly up and out, but the babies couldn’t.  It was time to lead those chicks to water, and the only available fluid was dyed green and pumped in an endless loop through a decorative vertical fountain.  The entire cadre was mounting an attack on the window glass surround, their frenzied barrage to absolutely no avail.  They repeatedly slammed feathered and fuzzied bodies against the invisible barrier.  They squawked, fluttered, righted themselves, and retreated to try yet again.

I muttered about the quandary and asked Melissa, the friendliest power figure in sight, to please get somebody to call the US Fish and Wildlife Service since they are empowered to resolve such situations.  She assured me that had been accomplished, and the babies would soon be relocated to a proper habitat.  I breathed with relief and proceeded with my senior day.

But many suns after that, finding myself in a pocket of time between activities, I wandered out into the atrium, remembering the ducks and glad they had found a forever home.  But as I strolled toward the far corner of the landscaped area admiring the healthy trees and bushes, what did I hear but a quack.  It was the mother duck—still there.  She quacked again—a reprise.  Then she flap-waddled out from beneath her cover, quacking to her brood to keep-the-quack-up-or- else.  I was aghast.  They were still stranded.  The only water was a concretized green puddle that offered no opportunities for teaching young how to dabble for food.  How could they grow up to be proper knowledgeable waterfowl?  Some kind JCC soul must have been feeding them or they would already have become dead ducks.

A normal response to this information would have been a mild exclamation of amazement, and on to other things.  But I have a history with this kind of poultry.  I remembered as a toddler killing my pet duckling out of human ignorance.  It is hard to be dumber than a duck, but I had qualified.  As I traversed all my many days, again and again I encountered ducks.  Shortly after moving to Boston, Massachusetts, a lovely blue sky day sent Mommy and me to Boston Commons where we enjoyed a ride on the famous Swan-Boats.  It was one of those never-to-be-forgotten kind of days.  Everywhere the boat putt-putted it was accompanied by swarms of mallards positioning themselves for gratuitous tidbits.  The fat torpedo shaped bodies glided smoothly across the water, stopping every few foot-paddles to pivot head-down/tail-up, browsing for underwater produce.  They seemed to prefer our bread crumbs though and always gladly forsook dabbling for begging.  Several mother hens had clutches of babies that followed with unerring loyalty.  It was impossible to witness their antics without smiling, making it a happy memory.

Months later the Christmas Fairy arranged for a new book to find its way under my family’s tree.  It was a 1941 first edition of Robert McKloskey’s book, “Make Way for Ducklings.”  It was a relief to find that my fowl murder hadn’t stunted the species.  Other ducklings had mother and father ducks who tried hard to keep them safe.  Even when the family made a mistake, humans were able to understand and help them move through danger to a perfect home beside the Charles River.  It was my perfect book, assuring me that mistakes could be forgiven, and everything could finally be OK.

Many years later my husband, Ken, and I made a home on Irvine, California’s Woodbridge Lake.  We chose the condo especially for its lake access, with a deck that allowed fishing from either the living room or from the dining room.  Such intimacy with the water was pure pleasure, and every night after dinner our favorite pastime was a holding-hands promenade around the lake.  Of course my mallards had made an appearance, though a continent away.  The mother birds understood that our deck was a safe place to hatch babies, and we enjoyed the annual parade of ducklings making their way down to try the water.

It was during that residence along the lakeshore that I learned about duck rape.  Ken and I observed on our evening walks that ducks don’t simply agree to mate.  Several drakes would surround a hen.  They would hold her head down on the ground, while one at a time other ducks would have at her.  It was scandalous.  I was discouraged to find that my cherished waterfowl were lacking in nobility.  I’m still hoping that it was just a California anomaly, and that species-wide such ignoble behavior is not a universal.

Nothing is ever perfect.  That was a good lesson to learn.  Expectations of perfection of myself, or of others, is foolish and sure to lead to disappointment.  We all manage to be pretty wonderful most of the time.  That applies to ducks, to JCC managers, and even to myself.  We could have enjoyed living into being McKlowsky heroes to our misplaced mallards, but I am the one with a duck issue.  To well-adjusted people they are just waterfowl.  The ducks are sure to understand and forgive.  So must I.

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Daddy

“I want my Daddy!” dreamtime-me cries to whatever enclosure encapsulates this happening.  It doesn’t answer.  Night terrors are interesting company but do not substitute for the real people we miss and want to revisit.  I am desperate to write about that larger than life man but procrastinate with every excuse imaginable.  I resist telling about his shadow side, not that it ever wished me ill or purposefully caused me harm.  Why then do I put this off?  I have written snippets of the whimsical father at home, sharing family fun, tutoring daughter determined to walk in his steps, later caring for aging mother.  That is easier than explaining how he forgot to divorce my own mother before he married, one after another, four other women.  Mommy and I were destitute.  She was stuck with a child to support, and no marketable skills beyond poetry and piano playing.  I was twisted into a love/hate dilemma with a Daddy who was long gone—fodder for night terrors.

But daytime memories are different. I open my front door and moan, “Just look at this mess.  There’s no way I’ll ever get it set to rights.  It’s impossible!”  That’s a lie we tell ourselves all too often when presented with a formidable task.  Of course a large and complex assignment is daunting.  Big jobs are like that.  They challenge; they intimidate; they terrorize— but they all have a secret weakness that is waiting to be exploited.  They can be subdivided into accessible units.  I learned this gem of wisdom from my inventor father, Kelsey, when during one joint endeavor I quailed at the prospect of turning a complex electronic schematic into a printed circuit board etch pattern.  “I’m not that smart,” I protested.  “It’s too complicated.”

“You’re smart enough,” Daddy insisted.  Anyway, you don’t have to be smart—just tricky.  He slid a pen from his always-at-the-ready pocket protector and began laying lines on the drawing.  When he was finished, the fraught circuit was understandable as several simpler, much less intimidating ones.  He labeled them for me so I could visualize how they interacted: Power Supply, Splitter, Invertor, Oscillator, Amplifier.  Suddenly I perceived the job as something doable.  Divide and conquer is more than an art of war.  It can focus energy to accomplish otherwise impossible tasks.

Back to the mess, detritus of a human family doing what it does so well.  As I dealt with the inherent mayhem of parenting three small children, I often reached back to access practical guidance remembered growing up in a tech-savvy family.  Daddy analyzed everything; only then he proceeded with what must be done, but he always gave it his own special twist. 

A typical example was fly-catching in the Martin household.  When the annoying drone of the buzzing invaders reached exasperation level, Kelsey Martin fly-tracker beyond compare donned his safari hat, plugged in the Hoover Vacuum with its extra-long extension tube and set out on a small-game safari.  He delighted in this creative play, experiencing the thrill of the hunt, the suspense of creeping up on an oblivious prey, and the final denouement of the kill, one more dastardly house-fly sucked into oblivion.  He would crow with triumph at every winged trophy pulled into and careening down the tube, through the hose, into the dust bag of history, consigned to non-existence as an entity that had lived for the sole purpose of annoying Kelsey Martin.

This escapade always attracted a following.  As Daddy prosecuted his war on flies, we kids trailed behind, a rowdy retinue, cheering, jeering, getting in the way, tripping over power cord and vacuum hose, wanting only to be part of this Pied Piper’s parade.  It didn’t matter that there was only one vacuum cleaner; and that it was only Daddy who wore the safari hat; our merry band followed, laughing all the way.

Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun.  Perhaps most memorable and long reaching was putting on his pants.  I would have learned the best way to insert legs into trousers long before I was fifteen had I not been living with my aunt and uncle in Texas.  Soon after arriving at my new Long Island home, Daddy enlightened me with respect to the art of putting on lower garments creatively.  “It’s an improved method,” he explained, “More efficient, easier on the low back, and fun to boot.”  He demonstrated: Sitting on the edge of the bed, positioning trousers waist agape, he folded knees to chest and leaned far, far back, as pants sailed aloft, thrusting both feet into their proper pant legs.  When he rolled forward into starting position, his pants were as good as on.  All that was needed was to stand, draw them up, button, zip, and buckle.  “There,” he exclaimed.  “That’s how it’s done.  It works the same for under-drawers or panties.  Leaning forward, while you’re lifting legs one at a time, can strain your back.  Not healthy”

OK.  I got the picture.  During the ensuing sixty-eight years, I have, every morning, put on my panties, bloomers, leggings, jeans, shorts, or slacks both legs at once.  It’s impossible to daily reenact this bit of whimsy without a smile, as I remember my dad earnestly explaining to a wide-eyed adolescent; how taking a creative approach to even the mundane chores of life can be the birthright of even a lost-and-found daughter.

All these many years later, I still despise housecleaning.  It’s boring.  It has to be done over and over again day after day after day—a quotidian quagmire.  No-one asks you to take a bow for how well you scrubbed the floor or folded diapers.  It’s a thankless task and not the least bit fun.  But then I invented “The Housecleaning Game.”  It changed everything.  Since it was a game, I convinced my children to play it with me, Tom Sawyer style.  That contrived to assure their cooperation, and it was easier and faster with extra hands helping.  I did learn from my Dad that work ought to be fun.  Any way a job can be structured to achieve that goal is worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.

So—I drew a floor plan layout of the entire house including furniture, and superimposed a grid over the entire drawing.  Next, I labelled each grid square.  Those labels, I copied onto paper squares, and loaded them into a tall, pottery jug, along with additional whimsical assignments such as: Eat five M&M’s; Take a 30 minute nap; Mop the kitchen floor; Sing a song; Run around the house twice; Have a spot of tea; Share three of your many blessings.

So far so good.  Each player must choose, eyes closed, a slip of paper from the dark interior of the jug.  There’s the possibility you may be instructed to munch sweets or perform calisthenics.  More likely you will get a grid square number.  This is the point at which you feel the weight of the impossible task lift from your shoulders.  You must address what is in your grid square and only that.  You may not do any work outside of that square.  Like an observant Jew savoring Sabbath rest, you are relieved of the guilt that naturally accrues to not performing the whole impossible task.  Even God rested on the seventh day.  Must you do more?  I remember the fun of carefully making up the lower right quadrant of the bed, carefully eschewing the remaining three quadrants, which must, in the benevolent order of things, await their turn.

Like Daddy repeatedly said, “Most things aren’t impossible, only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.”  But having an endless source of vision can be daunting, as night after night of dreams attests and revisits.  My job is to integrate both fathers—the one in my dreams, and the one in my nightmares—into what is right and real.  Then he can indeed rest in peace, and so can I.  Memorializing my Dad can surely be accomplished as long as I tell his story one complicated chapter at a time, and be sure to have fun doing it.

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Fertilization

I’ve spent the last sixty years complaining about getting kicked out of Carnegie Institute of Technology.  It was the end of everything.  When my Dad’s business went bankrupt, and he couldn’t pay second semester tuition and fees, it was all over for me.  I convinced the Dean of Students to let me sign on personally to the debt in return for permission to take final exams.  I sat for them, then packed my bags and took off for parts unknown.

In retrospect, losing my place in that very conservative engineering institution may have been the best thing ever to have happened to me.  After recovering my stance as a viable though modest bread-winner, it was time to get back to school.  Opportunities were limited.  The only four-year possibility within Greyhound commuting distance was Salem, a West Virginia teacher’s college tucked into the green Appalachian foothills, between Parkersburg and Clarksburg.  Engineering Physics wasn’t even offered.  The closest thing to my one-time dream was Divisional Science, available to secondary level teachers of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  I signed on and didn’t look back. 

Salem was a liberal arts college.  That meant, I later discovered, that I would be exposed to a whole gamut of ideas, not just facts.  There were many courses in a lively continuum of scientific subjects, but also with my minor in English, I enjoyed all the richness of our language spread out as a table of linguistic delights.  For fun, there were spiritual electives, wherein I broadened my appreciation of what might be believed, how and why.  French and Art fell by the wayside.  I was sad to see them go, but you can’t learn everything.  As I look back over the way that crazy-quilt of education overlaid the world of work, I see that Salem curriculum as key to becoming an inventor in a way that fulfilled my dream as well as my prayer.  The dream was that I become an engineer my father could be proud of; the prayer was that he might love me even though I was a girl.  One thing led to another, and three years later I packed it in with just one semester remaining, returning to Texas—home.

My work career started at Richardson’s TI in 1964 Dallas—showing up and demanding a job, any job.  With two boys, 7 and 3, I had to get a life.  Enough with an idealized West-Virginia-mountain-mama-home and crawling toward a degree.  My kiddoes needed food and underpants.  At Texas Instruments, Apparatus Division, I had plenty of opportunity to see things uniquely vantaged.  Hired on as a lowly Assistant Assembler B, I soon reached back to the technical drawing learned at CIT and proposed a device to improve my workstation performance.  An after-hours built wiring board design that provided for group measuring, cutting, stripping, and soldering got instant attention, a raise and a promotion.  Then I got to write and illustrate assembly instructions until, repeatedly proposing work saving jigs and fixtures, I was promoted yet again to Tool Designer.  At six weeks I was making thrce what I had at grunt start pay.  TI was responsive.  They didn’t sneer at good ideas.  While there, carrying Badge Number 15695, I designed all the assembly tooling on the F-111 TFX program.  That was exciting since the TFX (terrain following radar) was the program’s claim to fame.  We were in the storm’s eye.  All that was fun, but I had hit the ceiling.  Even though I was assigned to coach every engineering school graduate new-hire how it was that I did what I did, no more money was possible without a college degree, and I was still one semester short of that achievement.

Transferring and crossing the street to TI’s Corporate Research and Engineering Division was a new start.  It was a wonky place where they understood my frustration and let me work while earning a bit more money, even without the sheepskin.  I worked for Dr. Linda Creagh who was doing research on 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane, a photo reactive chemical, to demonstrate its use in working with a ruby laser as a research tool.  This was chemistry—not physics.  My job was to mix the required reagents to produce our compound, set up a distillation apparatus, and heat the slurry until it began boiling.  As temperature elevated, different fractions evaporated, were condensed and caught.  Each fraction was analyzed by a spectrophotometer to precisely measure its purity.  The 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane we were after was an azure blue fluid that when very pure could be exposed to laser light demonstrating a wide variety of amazements.  But it wasn’t all that easy.  No matter how much care I took in isolating a fraction, there always remained enough impurity to spoil its use inside the little glass photo cube that waited for us to get our act together. 

I have often been amazed to find that the most innovative breakthroughs happen at the interstices of things.  This was a chemical problem, but the solution I found was a physical one.  We had been successful in producing very pure fractions of our chemical, but the impurities always seemed to be extremely volatile, evaporating at a very low temperature, and carried over into fractions where they didn’t belong.  Remembering Halloweens spent over boiling kettles while wearing witches hats and croaking, ‘When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning, or in rain?’ I picked up a hunk of dry ice at the local ice house and brought it to work disguised as lunch. 

I proposed my idea to Dr. Creagh, who listened with interest.  We put a nearly pure fraction of 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane into a beaker and dropped into it a small lump of the dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide.  I counted on the dry ice not reacting to our compound, and the doctor agreed.  No chemical interaction was expected.  I was using the CO2 as an inert physical broom to brush away all those volatile impurities.  It worked!  The beaker frothed with CO2 being sublimed through the fluid—going direct from solid to gas and making a big froth—as the gas escaped, dragging volatile impurities up into the air and away.  The project was saved, and when it was written up for publication, I had earned a footnote mention for my invention of “a method for removing volatile impurities from a fluid.”  This was remarkable in that technicians don’t usually get any credit for anything, and for being one of many instances where innovation reaches across demarcations between specialties and fertilizes the process of invention.

This kind of approach served me well in a variety of situations.  A typical example was working for Varo Inc. where I migrated a year later since that outfit allowed technicians to work flexible hours in order to accommodate illusive degree programs.  I was a technician by day and attended advanced biochemistry classes at night.  I was amazed at how many drums of flux remover that Varo bought and used, and at what great expense.  So, I took some to school and analyzed it in the Chem Lab.  It was mostly dry cleaning fluid, with a dollop of amyl acetate (an ester that makes bananas smell like banana).  Varo started making its own flux remover and saving a bundle.  This wasn’t a healthy or environmentally friendly idea since perchloroethylene  isn’t something that should be continuously inhaled any more than Kester flux remover should be.  But it was a mile-post on my march.  It was also another shoulder rub from physical to chemical invention that earned me an ataboy—girl.

Yet another reach across as Engineer after I had acquired that elusive degree, was at Varo’s Static Power Division.  It was a Sherman Texas facility devoted entirely to manufacture of night vision power supplies.  Powering a night vision unit required a high voltage multiplier.  It was a string of diodes cleverly arrayed to step up to the extremely high voltages needed to see in very low light.  It was necessary to stabilize the component connections to prevent disastrous internal arcing.  An obscenely expensive potting compound was used to achieve this electrical isolation.  I replaced the compound with cheerfully cheap high tech beeswax.  It worked just as well and saved Varo a ton of bucks. It could be melted and drained if necessary, and that was a big advantage.

Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to look for the bright idea light bulb.  It’s just there glaring at you.  My first day at the TI Sherman facility found me stepping over bulging garbage bags, bags on top of bags, bags of spacers spilling onto the floor, swept up by tricky breezes to dance away and hide.  Of course the assembly line was stopped, quiet as death.  The tried-and-true method had turned out to be a bust.  Millions of plastic one-eighth inch diameter tiny plastic donuts stored in plastic bags were static discharge waiting to resolve.  Every attempt to recapture the spacers and present them for automated assembly with their target diodes had failed—miserably.  The charged spacers became a veritable fluid, had minds of their own, and resisted handling as they took flight willy-nilly inspired by their individual electromagnetic imperatives.  My reputation as a wise-ass preceded me, and my first assignment was to “fix this mess.”

It seemed so obvious.  The plastic spacers were formed in an injection molding machine inside a mold that formed twenty-four identical donuts, all tied together by the plastic caught in the molten plastic feed channels, called the sprue.  The spacers already had the perfect holding fixture, needing only the foresight to use it.  The sprue itself was every spacer’s perfect holder.  The invention invented itself.  I had only to design a tool that clamped the sprue with its twenty-four precisely located still-attached spacers while a human inserted twenty-four diodes into their yawning apertures, and only then pressed a button to automatically separate the twenty-four diode/spacer assemblies from the now superfluous sprue.  It worked.  The work-area was so tight that a single bar blade couldn’t access the washer/sprue attachment points, but twenty-four narrow gauge pointy tipped X-acto Knife Blades, cunningly mounted, did the trick.  A solenoid provided the requisite actuation.  An inclined plane allowed the blades to slide up and slice at just the right angle.  Big red push-switches initiated first “clamp” and then “cut.”  Making the switches dual-actuated kept fingers safely out-of-the-way.  A single switch pressed did nothing; only when both right and left buttons were depressed would anything happen.

Years later at TRW while working on military aerospace proposals, it was often when experts in different specialties met and knocked heads that the creative work got done.  My most satisfying personal contributions to those efforts seemed often rooted in that Salem College ambrosia of science as art.  It was then that I decided getting booted out of Carnegie Tech was not all that bad.  I’m told that this is one of the blessed truths of Kabballah: It’s where the wounds of life open you up that the light gets in and creates your beauty.

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Walk On

When I moved to Oakley and decided it was time to get old, senescence ensued in a hurry.  Suddenly I couldn’t walk very far, and when I did walk it was a shuffle.  With legs stiff and unbending, feet advanced apologetically.  They hurt.  Feet always hurt, whether used or miss-used, but should that make walking a dilemma?  Surely not.  Why foot misery when I was spending most of my time watching TV?  Good question.

I sought out a physical therapist.  With professional assistance this situation could surely be remedied.  She prescribed new shoes from a place called Fleet Feet.  This store serviced elite runners, so putting feet into Fleet Feet shoes would surely achieve the wished for gait. However I learned that Fleet Feet shoes can slog along as miserably as those from a discount store.  I enjoyed the high-tech laser measurement of my very own stockinged appendages, but the resulting fit seemed no better than other less scientifically ascertained equivalents.

As I visited a variety of medics, voicing a range of somatic complaints, this became an ugly pattern.  After dropping in on my orthopedic surgeon, sure that his ten-year-old spinal stenosis surgery had gone wrong and needed revisiting, he assured me that his handiwork was holding firm due to good bones and Citrical, not to mention his expert surgical skill. “Then why does my back hurt?” I whined. He pulled a sad face—a try at empathy— but at least he didn’t shrug his shoulders.

I dragged home and succumbed to the call of my recliner, always there to console and to comfort, just waiting for me to fit my ageing body into its compassionate embrace.  Lazy Boy and I were surely an item.  No matter where I went or what I did to make my back misbehave, he remained faithful and true to form.  When I returned, lowered aching bones onto his padding and leaned back, he surrounded and consoled my entirety. The pain went away until I got up and gave perambulation another try.

This worked well until one day I realized that when I arose, putting feet to floor, I proceeded to move around while vertebrae maintained the curve set by my chair.  A sideways glance at the hallway mirror showed me shuffling about my domicile shaped like my furniture—a moveable hairy question-mark.  Next time I arose, I stopped and straightened closer to runway posture—an improvement, reminiscent of what every intelligent dog achieves on arising.  He puts front paws together, pulls a big stretch, and only then proceeds to trot across the floor.  If humans are supposed to be so smart, how come every dog knows this and I don’t?

After that I began arching my back into a big stretch every time I left my chair.  It helped.  That made me curious about how people move all their many parts, especially as they morph into being codgers.  I have long held a suspicion that we become whatever our inner vision decrees.  These problems started back when I decided to get old.  The Devil made me do it.

It seemed a useful thing to simply pay attention.  After a month and more doing a doggie stretch every time I stood up, it got to be easier and felt more natural.  One day when low back was particularly painful, I stood up and did a monster stretch.  Then I called on my entire body to help.  That meant subtly flexing arms, legs, shoulders and butt, all at once, sort of declaring an all-around connection.  Then I felt the angle of my pelvis subtly tilt, and the pain evaporate.  Slowly, tentatively, I walked across the room.  Anguish was left lolling in the chair, an old thing that nobody really wanted anyway.

That day’s learning suggested that maybe it would be a good thing to spend less time lounging in my Lazy-Boy.  I had given up taking walks last year since shuffling along the sidewalk had seemed a non-starter.  After having memorized all the cracks in my local sidewalks, as well as the various weeds that grew therefrom, it seemed a boring proposition to undertake that same walk yet again.  So last month I moved to new digs where I can walk to dozens of interesting destinations.  For me Heaven is being able to walk to the library.  Now living at the center of Blue Ash, Ohio, I can stroll to the public library.  This morning I pocketed phone and credit card, tied on my sunbonnet, and took off for the local Starbucks.  Could I make it?

Slouching along the sidewalk seemed a sad reminder of being an old person resigned to somehow keeping fit.  But engaging arms and shoulders worked just like it did in my living room, leaving my pain rollling along with dry leaves dancing in the gutter.  I envisioned being at Starbucks, ordering a tall decaf cappuccino, and my step quickened.  It was reminiscent of my dad telling me to keep my eyes on the horizon when driving, so as to see everything there was to see, not just focusing on the rear end of the car directly ahead. Such short sight causes a jittery correction of aim and can be seen as weaving along the roadway.  Eyes hooked on the far horizon smooth the process of steering as the vehicle is guided toward a sure destination.  It works with walking as well as with driving.  Thinking about where I’m headed makes me stop obsessing about aches and pains in favor of coffee and company.

My last time to stop for morning brew at Starbucks was pre-Covid, and things had changed.  No raw sugar and Half-‘n-Half at-the-ready.  They had to be requested from a barista. Prices had taken advantage of the crisis.  Who could have assumed otherwise? But in every respect it was doable, even for a superannuated hiker.  I had walked all the way to Starbucks!

Heading back after enjoying my cup of Joe at a table secured by legal tender, and time spent using my IPhone to spin flitting thoughts into coherent prose, I wondered if I would have enough energy to get back home.  My PT had agreed with my arms-moving-along-with-gait thesis citing the fact that Parkinson’s patients can’t swing their arms.  Also people who must move their hands in order to speak illustrate this idea, Nancy Pelosi being a case in point. It must be a neuron thing. 

As I zapped my various elder parts with power of mind, they united around a sense of energized purpose, arms swinging, matching stride with pumping legs, collecting my whole self into a dynamo of getting-there.  When arms move with verve, body responds with vigor.  I made it back home with oomph to spare, looking forward to tomorrow’s hike to the Sleepy Bee Café where who knows what may turn up and commence buzzing?  Enough with getting old!  There’s too much to do to waste time with anticipatory anxiety.  Anticipatory glee is better. 

Next week—the library.  Walk on!

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Good Neighbors

Returning from town to my cabin in the woods, I surprised Espresso, my trusty black pussycat, holding court on a tree stump by the cabin door.  I killed the engine and watched.  He appeared to be communing with a fox lounging in the grass, just two or three fox leaps away.

I had slowed the car, stopped, set the brake, and slipped out, determined to reconnoiter the duo.  They waited and watched, sharing a quiet interest in my arrival.  Espresso typically would have come running, tail aloft, meowing a plaintive hello, but today he just drew himself up like some Egyptian cat god and watched, first me, then the fox.  Back and forth his round-eyed gaze panned with only an intermittent whisker twitch.

Mr. Fox appeared robust, sleek and healthy.  He had a full brush, tipped with white cream, and a thick, rich, coppery coat.  He displayed no fear, only a regal curiosity, but seemed to appreciate that I, in some strange two-footed way, belonged to the cat. 

When Espresso finally jumped down and meandered toward me, the fox rose, yawned, stretched, and began his own measured approach.  That did it!  Composure be damned!  Aplomb sacrificed to the suspense of these slow speed machinations, I snatched up the cat and tossed him into the car.  The door’s slam broke the spell.  Mr. Fox glared at me, disappointed that I had questioned his intentions or had deprived him of lunch—I’m not sure which.  I apologized and assured him that I knew him to be a fine fox but was nevertheless committed to my pussycat.  He paused to taste the air in several directions and finally moved on, slowly picking his way through the low brush and weeds, several over-the-shoulder appraisals punctuating a dignified retreat into a pine thicket.  I was sad to see him leave.  He was beautiful, and his trust rare—a benediction.

One of the many wonders of my sojourn in the Appalachian woodlands has been the willingness of the wildlife to accept me.  The deer, rabbits, snakes, birds and squirrels seem to understand that I have no interest in them excepting the wonder of our sharing this natural aesthetic.  One afternoon, my mind otherwise occupied, I stepped out the cabin door straight into the muscled black loops of a snake sunning himself on the deck.  A quick apperception assessed no danger since his coloring and head shape contraindicated the local poisonous varieties.  So I waited, one foot still in the cabin, one planted on the deck, while the snake, warm and equable, uncoiled his smooth scaly length from about my ankle and glided peaceably across the warm boards.  He chose a likely gap between the planks and slid headfirst into the abyss.  It would have been a simple exodus, excepting a small bulge, probably a recent rodent snack, which brought his progress to an embarrassing halt.

Back out and find another route?  No way!  He demonstrated his confidence in choice of exit strategies by elevating the entire following half of his person and doing an upside down hula dance until the rest of him finally slipped through.  There was no hurry.  We had agreed that he was an appreciated reptile and would be given all the time and space necessary to do his thing, however curious.  For many months Mr. Snake and I shared our quiet forest clearing as the best of friends.  Later as snowflakes fell and wood-smoke rising curled away, we kept the silent peace.

The cabin I had rented for a year of writing belonged to a Feminist Land Trust called Susan B. Anthony Memorial Unrest Home.  I had thought to enjoy a time away from the ever-puzzling testosterone dilemma—can’t live with ‘em; can’t live without ‘em.  It turned out, however, to be annoying to abide with the strict no-man enforcement.  Moving into the cabin took more than the one evening of unloading, so it seemed reasonable to let the two careful, quick, and kind Beacon-men-equivalents curl up in the loft until morning.  They were hot and sweaty, but not wanting to offer them the run of my private ladies room, I sent them to the pond, which I found out later was for nude woman bathing only.  It’s a good thing the femme Nazis never found out about that indiscretion since they would have renamed it a desecration. 

So ardent was Subamuh enforcement that I began to take glee in inviting my manly sons to drop by with loads of split firewood and stay awhile for a meal at Mom’s table.  Imagine the delight I took in stopping for a Silver Fox neighbor in tight jeans and tank top, overloaded with fresh picked and packed blackberries and headed into town to peddle his wares.  It was a good decision to offer him a ride.  For the remainder of my time in Ohio’s eastern woodlands, I enjoyed his company as yet another of the indigenous friendly fauna.  The resident man-haters were fauna as well, but not nearly such good neighbors.

Clambering about on the trails of Subamuh put me into a gentle space of introspection.  The leased cabin was a refuge for writing but it was not a cage.  As a legitimate renter, those many acres were available to me to explore, but putting one foot before the other doesn’t occupy a lively mind, and it was left to cavort at will.  The hiking became a walking meditation inspiring new insights.  Inhabiting a cabin at a Lesbian enclave made even the most hetero of personalities begin to self-analyze, snooping down any number of shady corridors.  I am no different, my three husbands being an exercise in brand identification, but not necessarily consummated self-knowledge.

I learned a smattering of feminist theory while eavesdropping at the back of Subamuh gatherings, one of their favorite topics being the butch-femme dynamic:  A butch woman has affirmed her power.  That’s what’s so compelling about her.  She demands and gets respect.  A femme woman worships that power and, like the moon, reflects its beauty.  A butch can see her own radiance only in the eyes of her lover.  It’s probably the most profound of loves, envied by the breeders, attracting their disdain and resentment.  The butch employee is typically better paid since the assertive personality attracts a richer share of the world’s commerce.  Everybody admires a strong confident demeanor and work style. 

Such overheard quandaries meandered through my mind as boots parted grass, still wet from the last night’s dewfall.  It’s fortunate they are prepared for their job with the serious boot wax I scored at Tractor Supply Store.  I didn’t want to appear sissified to all those rough-hewn ladies.  But then, why would I worry about such things?  They were, after all, my boots.  I wanted them to last, impervious to soggy aggress.  Also, why did I care what a convocation of lesbians thought?

Memories of resisting assault took me back to my first Subamuh confrontation.  Crissa, the ultra-femmie office manager, confused me.  Was she a lesbo or what?  She must have been a femme—a strong one.  A strong femme is greedy; she wants it all.  If she is acting out a lesbian paradox, she wants to have the butch and be her as well.  I shook my head.  Too complicated!  I have always dithered over choosing between family and career, but this is more complex.  I had questioned Crissa about sharing part of the creative work at Subamuh, offering to write for the newsletter.  I recoiled at her freak-out.  She stands there in memory, summoning a scowl from me all these years later. 

She explains why the job is, and will remain, all hers.  In her youthful exuberance, she gets carried away with herself, coyly bragging about how much fun it is making out with Molly, her sweetie.  That kind of crass ostentation offends everyone enduring singlehood, not just me, but it’s not my job to express community outrage.  I’m just a renter.  Time and group dynamic are sure to sort the thing out.  Her attitudes and behavior are not related to me personally.  I can relax and just smirk at Crissa’s narcissistic posturing, no worse than my own.  When I feel inadequate, it’s so easy to erect a safe intellectualism and dare an intruder to assault my tower.  Ravish me, God!  Open me, Holy Spirit!  Sweet Jesus, let truth be your rapier.  Fascinating, isn’t it, how such flights of mythic enthusiasm morph inexorably into sexual and religious fervor?  This train of thought isn’t only something I read.  It’s what I have long meditated about, bubbling up from murky mire.  It’s interesting how, if insights are scripted, mythical references float up.  Each of us is on a hero’s quest, a sojourner in our own epic.  I wonder if this concept is a distillation of Joseph Campbell and all the myth and psychobabble I’ve waded through, their facts stored as meta data in a tangle of neurons? 

Climbing to the property’s highest point is a treat for the eyes.  I admire the view as I focus far away and remember earlier days.  As a child, one of my earliest insights was that I can’t learn everything.  Memory can only accommodate so much and must be conserved.  I saw no purpose in memorizing arithmetic facts and rejected that task a priori.  My third child, Kurt the artist/philosopher, did the same but never gave in to store a bunch of left brain twaddle like I finally did as remedy to my lack.  It is only in this informed millennium that we can verify the reality of cognitive self-limitation.  At five Kurt, determined to be a race car driver, swore off arithmetic.  Good for him.  He got to actually become an artist.

But for me, the corollary to cognitive limitation followed swiftly, informed by culture.  I learned that females simply cannot learn certain things: “Girls are poor at arithmetic.”  It follows that I, a girl, must be maladroit concerning numbers.  Mommy said so.  She said I was just like Daddy and smart like him, but being a girl I could never do his kind of work.  When presented with a task in sums or differences, I would squander my first magical milliseconds mulling about how I can’t do this.  Then, so disarmed, I would attempt to solve the problem—unsuccessfully.  Maybe I really was number challenged? 

Every week I checked out the 6-book limit at my elementary school library and enjoyed hauling them home, consoled by their mass, feeling surrounded by words, learning early-on the satisfaction of cohabitating with a library.  I was no different from early cultures that scribed their understandings and used them for companionship.  Alexander and I were surely soulmates.  Consider the Torah treasured in its ark.  How could God not have been understood as word?

Even before word, God was before all else number.  Mathematicians acknowledge that any and all civilizations, throughout each and every universe, must hold in common the understandings of number science.  That reality existed long before primitive humans began to numerate fingers and toes.  My child brain quickly correlated integers with things Daddy could do, things Daddy could know, things Daddy could be, over and against things possible to Dotty.  It was all because I was made to be a flawed version of Daddy.  In all things visible I was like Daddy save at the fork where all important things converge and contend.  Daddy had a special tool for peeing that was superior in function to my own, which allowed fluid to dribble stupidly down legs and fill shoes.  No matter how smart I might become, everyone would know my squishy secret: Daddy was better.  Even as an adult bringing the principles of design to invention, I am haunted by how evolution left women holding the short end of the proverbial prick.  Gynecology is so patterned like a simple cell employing a contractile vacuole to facilitate removal of metabolic detritus.  Our only superiority over the male model seems to be having evolved beyond utilizing a plenum to evacuate urine and cum.  But then—there are the babies.  Even Daddy couldn’t make a child without a woman as co-conspirator.

I didn’t realize how poignantly held was such painful mis-belief until my daughter was born.  Her genitals were angry and red from having been bathed in my own rich endocrine brew.  My first vision of her opened diaper reminded me of my own tragic wound.  It filled me with love and pity for her and for what she could not become.  While hot tears of rage and compassion coursed down my cheeks, I blessed the small swollen mound—a mother’s kiss.

How sick is such belief?  How universal may it be—this lie?  Do I have this in common with other sensitive analytical women?  Is this why I obsess over much?  In high school I was called the nose since I appeared to be trying way-too-hard to please teachers.  Classmates didn’t understand that it was the lie that must be pleased.  I was the consummate overachiever that delighted teachers, but their praises were immaterial.  Those kids were so, so wrong.  It was my idea of Daddy that I was trying to please, not even the man himself.  Teachers were not a function of my equation.  I never spoke in defense of my behavior since I didn’t understand it myself, fearing only that I must embody some evil truth, hidden even from myself.  Mommy had constantly chided my behavior, telling me “Be nice, Dottie.  Be nice.”  That was the last thing I wanted.  Nice girls were stupid cows.  I didn’t want to be nice

It was good to return to the cabin, greet my trusty pussycat, and shed the boots, heavy with muck and mire.  It feels like I have shed more than foot-coverings returning from these lonely rambles.  I didn’t hesitate taking a writer’s cabin.  It was the right move at the right time.  My year of introspection completed, I realized that I had stayed long enough in the presence of the unspeakable. 

It was time to rejoin my tribe.  I had forgotten how afraid we are of standing in the presence, most especially our own.  I had expected the long silence to demolish my lie, but was amazed at how thoroughly it fell away.  As I swished through wet grass and weeds along the trail, no thought was worth speaking to the quiet air but absolute Truth.  I had learned long ago how dangerous that can be.  Truth is a double-edged sword meant for good but capable of bad.  Even so, who can argue with my Truth?  Whatever it is, it is mine. 

Perhaps it’s time to start being nice.  In 2021 Cincinnati, I am in the presence of people too smart and strong to believe lies.  I don’t have to defend any secret.  Others can affirm my path for me even though they may have chosen a different one for themselves.  I keep begging for rules and approved vocabulary, wanting to be given the keys to the kingdom, not understanding that I am the key as well as the kingdom.  It will take a long time, perhaps forever, to forget the machismo suffered in Daddy’s world—tech types gathering, comparing resumes, boasting prior accomplishments, utilizing jargon to flush out the uninitiated, and only then getting down to the real business of ego defense.  In 1957 at CIT, freshmen compared slide rule lengths.  I was the only one with enough gumption to spin a round rule, twice as fast but not the least bit phallic.  How beautifully the metaphor holds: the one woman plying a round rule, vanquishing an army of long stiff sliders.  In my cedar keepsake chest I have nestled my round rule beside my father’s straight one, a family paradox.  They both speak and compute God’s truth.  My Truth is mine to calculate.

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Birds vs Bees

People are blithering idiots about sex.  I can remember my Mother and Father arguing about it as I watched and listened.  Daddy had a business he incorporated as Precision Electronics in Cambridge, Mass.  The fledgling enterprise was intermittent, and he filled in the time between real work by inventing toys.  He had some success, even getting one of his designs assigned the moniker “Nippy Pup” and included in the 1947 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalogue.  It took a son of the Lone Star State to harken back to Neiman’s for an advertising gimmick when surrounded by East Coast savoir faire.

The toy dog was made of real lamb’s wool.  It featured a moveable neck made of a hyperextended compression spring and a cold black magnetic nose.  The dog’s “toy bone” was a sandwiched injection molding presenting a magnet at one end.  Nippy sported a plaid ribbon about his neck that shrouded his wobbly cervical apparatus.  Daddy was energized about offering an up-to-date canine that demonstrated the marvels of magnetism.  I thought it was ridiculous, but kept my opinion to myself, so as not to hurt Daddy’s feelings.  He had had a difficult year since the war was finally over, and the Manhattan project was disbanded, along with his creative involvement in its altimeter.

One day he brought home a new toy design.  It was also a dog, this one a small wooden one about four inches tall with articulated joints, floppy ears, and a sappy grin.  It was to be pulled with a string, sliding past a fire plug.  As it moved past the vertical hydrant, it raised its leg and pretend-sprayed it.  Daddy glowed with considerable pride and explained to Mommy and me, “When fire departments were new, they often had to break into a water main and take water to fight a fire.  When the day was finally saved, the hoses all rolled and stowed, the firemen would install a “fire plug” into the break, allowing for access to city water pressure to fight future fires.” He cleared his throat and continued.  “Precision Electronics is going to design a line of toys that demonstrates technology interfacing with living things.  Isn’t it a delightful irony that this little dog is squirting the water main rather than visa-versa?”  Daddy stood a bit taller as he offered a final summation, “This toy plays with the magic of magnetic attraction like Nippy Pup did.  It’s downright poetic.”

Mommy scowled and grumped, “Take that stupid thing back to your lab.  “It’s a dirty dog doing a dirty deed.  Kelsey. Your daughter is listening.  You shouldn’t expose a child to such filth.”

“Mary, do relax a little,” he admonished.  “Nice bit of alliteration by the way.  This little dog doing his earthy business is the kind of thing that makes the world go ‘round.  It’s life!  Life is beautiful.”

“Seems prurient to me,”

“Hmmm.  There’s an idea,” Daddy chortled.  “I could even make a dog jump up onto a bitch, like making puppies, all with magnets.”  But he was talking to a receding backside.  Mommy had left the room, muttering about men being lascivious.

I didn’t think much of Daddy’s toys, but not because they were salacious.  They just seemed kind of silly, but I wish Mommy didn’t always hurt his feelings.  The toy dog that raised its leg to pee went away, not to be heard from again.  I had loved Nippy Pup because Nippy was Daddy’s, and he was proud of it, even if it was kind of dumb.  Even an eight-year-old could see that something about people and animals was nasty and shameful.  It was something people just didn’t talk about if they could help it.

When I was twelve and living with Mommy’s sister Aunt Judy, she arranged at considerable inconvenience to have my twenty year old cousin Jeanne come and officially talk to me about sex while Judy and Wesson made dishwashing noises in the kitchen.  That was weird, not scary like Mommy and Daddy arguing over improper canine urination, but distinctly weird.

Jeanne made much of getting seated right next to me on the living room couch, pencil and paper at- the-ready.  The first page showed a man and woman dressed in modest sleeping attire.  Then there was the second page…  After a flurry of nasty diagrams, she told me that babies get made when the daddy puts his “thing” inside the mommy.  Nine months later a baby comes out.  I was embarrassed, not about the making of babies, but about everybody thinking I didn’t know.  I knew, but I didn’t want them to know I knew.  Piqued, I played their silly game, acting dumb but in actuality only merging my discomfiture with their own.  When she asked if I had any questions, I demanded to know how his “thing” got through the mommy’s nightgown.  Jeanne blushed and whispered furtively, “I guess she can pull it up.”

Judy must have been listening, because at that point she charged out of the kitchen to the rescue.  With a smile that was way too wide, she asked, “How’s it going?  Y’all ready for some fresh lemonade?”

“Gotta do my homework” I mumbled, mostly toward my feet, shilly-shallying toward my room, shaking my head.  Why did Judy go to so much trouble to feed me information about babies, and why didn’t she just tell me herself?  I already had guessed that stuff Jeanne told me, just knew, from visits to Grandpa’s farm.  Kids at school made jokes I didn’t understand, but I hadn’t made any girlfriends yet that I could ask.

So much for “the big lesson.”  Jeanne piled into Uncle C.J.’s Buick and began the tedious drive all the way from Oak Cliff’s Kessler Park, through downtown Dallas, past the old school-book depository, then on to Highland Park.  I was left to wonder, but not dare to ask, what this was all about.

I knew about the yucky pink thing that Wesson dangled below his shorts while he made morning coffee.  It made me feel nauseous, not that it had anything whatsoever to do with me, but that he knew I saw it and wanted me to see it.  Everything Wesson did expressed some evil intent.  He despised me because Judy envisioned me as the daughter she had always wanted, a pure affection that Wesson could never emulate, nor did he try.  His kind of lovemaking with Judy must surely have been selfish, crude, and hurtful.  Inexplicable to my childish understanding, Judy enjoyed Wesson’s attentions. 

She would put on a slinky ruffled teddy, pottering about the house on weekends, affecting a “little woman” domesticity while Wesson mowed the lawn, trimmed hedges, and made much ado of his manly chores.  He would come in occasionally to get a fresh beer and snuggle up against Judy’s backside while she peeled veggies.  He would slip his hand inside the loose silk while Judy giggled and shrugged him away.  Judy was not the giggling type; she better expressed her statuesque elegant nature dressed for a day of professional commerce in an exquisitely tailored suit, silk blouse, leather shoulder bag and suave up-do.

This remembered scene of Judy costumed for the boudoir, a grotesquerie of enticement, had a watercolor quality to it, a Monet camouflaged in its own reticulated light, a softening of truth to something remotely safe to envision.  Even in memory, I cringe.  She would shoo him out of the kitchen, clucking, “Don’t do that in front of the child,” the child being me.  Didn’t she know it was I, watching, seeing, feeling?  She surely felt the same as I did inside, where the tight pull of belly strings told me all I needed to know about womanliness.  Wesson was showing off for me, bragging wordlessly about what I was missing, what I would never enjoy no matter how much Judy loved my sweet little girl self.  His favorite diatribe when he could catch me alone always began, “Mommy’s sweet little thing.  You think you’re so special.  Your crazy mother is the only one who thinks you’re worth anything.”

If Judy didn’t want him to do that to her, she wouldn’t have dressed in swishy ruffles.  She did want his hand inside the silk, touching her skin, making her smile.  Why could she want his affection, when she knew sometime soon he would again break bones and make ugly bruises on that same tender skin?  I was awash with questions never to be asked lest they be answered and replace ignorance with fear and maybe even terror.

Soon I was fifteen and spent weekends helping my voice teacher’s lazy daughter complete her last year of high school as payment for singing lessons.  Sexual feelings continued to be something that I didn’t talk about.  My teacher lived in Darien, Connecticut.  She was well situated to host week-end parties inviting musical young people from the area for salon performance and socializing.  I typically got paired up with Alvin, a pretty decent violinist, nice and good-looking to boot.  He was sixteen, with an old jalopy and a new driver’s license.  We rode around or went to the movies or the Soda Shoppe and then returned to the teacher’s house before my curfew.  Before escorting me inside, Alvin always kissed me goodnight.  It was something I looked forward to all evening.  I didn’t care all that much about the movie or the sodas or the pizza; I just wanted to go back to the house and feel his soft lips pressed against mine.

Finally, requisite social group activity completed, we headed home.  Outside, we cuddled while the car idled, holding back the winter chill.  Then he pulled me close and gently covered my mouth with the soft warmth of his lips.  Hesitant, my tongue traced their meeting.  The center of my belly lurched.  The world dropped, and I hung weightless.  Then I slapped him and ran for the house.

This inexplicable pattern of behavior repeated itself several times, until one day Alvin finally asked me, “Why the slaps?”

I gulped, and began; “I saw a movie with Claudette Colbert and Jimmie Stewart.  That’s what she did when he kissed her.  Wouldn’t you think I’m fast if I liked it?”

“But you do like it?” he asked, taking my hand, his violin sensitive fingers tracing its outline, softly circling my palm.

I dropped my eyes and whispered, “Yes.”

Fingertip lifting my chin, he looked me straight in the eyes and pronounced, “Good.”  That bit of truth negotiated, we puckered up for a real kiss, actualized, enjoyed, and discussed in the immediacy of the present.  We laughed, cranked open the sun-roof, and headed for the movies.

Alvin and I had an understanding, maybe even a gentle friendship.  We enjoyed our occasional date smooches until I took off for Carnegie Tech to study physics, where my virginity remained resolutely intact.  I was singularly unimpressed by engineering freshmen, whose idea of scholarly competition was to compare whose slide-rule was the longest.  I was out of the running, having chosen a round rule which is quicker and arguably more accurate.

I only slapped one of those silly boys, only a single time, and that was when he pinched my bottom in General Chemistry lab while I was setting up a distillation.  My instincts were pure, completely bypassing interval reaction time.  He pinched; I slapped.  The cavernous room rang with the impact.  I didn’t miss a beat, continuing with my procedure while the other students grinned and whispered behind their hands.

Later, while settling into the pleasurable realities of marriage, I still retained my reticence about kissing and telling.  I insisted, for instance, to my mother-in-law, that nothing had “happened” between James and me, until a swelling belly proved otherwise.  I hadn’t sworn James to secrecy, so it still isn’t clear why, when he was presented with the fact of his impending paternity, he declared it must have been somebody else’s doing, swearing he had done nothing—absolutely nothing.

Why are humans so caught up in approach/avoidance about sex?  Why did it take Freud so long to realize he was onto something big, and for the rest of us to appreciate his insight?  What could possibly cause an otherwise stable fellow writer to assert that such concepts as herein elucidated should not be put to print, citing the “obvious fact” of the author’s having been molested in childhood? My questions stand, begging some quiet, thoughtful, informed answers.

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Connection

Calling a complete stranger and striking up a conversation is a scary thing to do, but that’s exactly what I must do if I am to stay on the good side of Elisa, my physical therapist at the JCC (Jewish Community Center).  Working out kinks in the musculature of my ageing body leads to a superb level of understanding.  Elisa and I have a meeting of minds.  There is mutuality, but I suspect the depth of wisdom is mostly on her side of the discussion.  She has decided that I am surely a dear friend of her mother-in-law, Nancy Travis, who lives with her husband of many years in New York City and who simply adores opera.

It was at New York’s Metropolitan that I saw my first opera, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  It was the beginning of a love affair that was to last a lifetime and bring joy to an otherwise tangled web of motherhood, livelihood, marriage, and religion.  As a sixteen-year-old wannabe coloratura doing housework to pay for voice lessons, opera represented the epitome of a life of singing that began as a toddler occupying the various laps of my mother’s Glad Girl’s Glee Club.

As soon as I could stand on a stage, Mother had me soloing for whosoever would listen, typically her Baptist Sunday School.  Year after year choral singing was as natural as breathing, and it lead to classical vocal repertoire and eventually to opera.  Opera is a spectacle for the well-heeled, and I was typically on my own to afford—or not to afford— enjoyment of such beauty.  The result is that I am not really an expert.  I just like to sing opera, and typically request that Alexa play Italian Opera, such as Verdi, or Puccini to keep me company in my little-old-lady Senior apartment.  Classical Baroque is a nice change, but I always return to first loves.  Like Vivian hearing Violetta’s Aria for the first time in Pretty Woman, it never fails to make me cry.

Given this kind of love for drama set to music, Elisa is surely right about Nancy Travis and Dorothy Martin having things worth discussing, but picking up the phone is another story.  What if we can’t think of anything to say?  I always ask myself that question.  Blabbing on the phone has never come naturally to me.  Even as a farm wife on an isolated West Virginia farmstead, where getting chores done so as to enjoy party-line palaver with other isolated wives was what energized the day’s work, I just couldn’t pick up that phone.  Mostly the talk was about weather or kid’s problems, or how was the garden growing, or what was for dinner, and what would go well with those new green beans.   Even if I could join in, there was the surety that up and down the line, other people were tuned in.  That’s what folks did before there was TV and Days of Our Lives.  We had to generate our own soap operas.

My life tended toward drama, and I had no need to enjoy others vicariously.  But that was then.  This is now.  Most of what I wanted to do is done.  It’s mostly over, but that’s OK.  At eighty-two, I don’t need a day filled with challenge.  I just would like to visit peacefully with age mates about things that pique mutual interests.  My rooms are quiet, a welcome change, but not lonely.  It would be nice to have some company, but a cat must be fed, medications administered, litterbox attended.  There is much to be paid for the benefit of a purring compatriot that greets arrivals with meows and body-swipes against legs in anticipation of the grinding crank of one more can being opened. 

There is always the possibility of yet another husband, but they snore.  They might hold forth on interesting subjects, but will they listen?  Not likely.  The household income might benefit, but the ratio of person to person power might become irrevocably imbalanced.  Would I have any say at all?  Elisa has a good idea.  What could possibly be more delightful than chatting up an old lady who likes opera?

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Homeless

When it becomes dangerous to live in your own home it’s time to leave, and leave I did, taking with me my cat, my Collie dog, and my Sig Sauer P239.  Yes, I had a permit to carry, so I was legal in case it might have become an issue.  It was early October in Roanoke, Virginia.  The weather was seasonably delightful, and my green tent blended well with the autumn color at the local campground nestled in the foliage alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I should have left years before, but had nowhere else to go.  I had no savings since my retirement income always got sucked away into the expense of running house and horse farm.  The bruises got worse.  I was fed up with being slammed against walls, brutalized in ways that cringe at even the prospect of description.  That hurts in every way there is to hurt.

My ’89 Acura Legend had a capacious trunk with a small seat-back door that folded down to allow access to the main interior.  It was designed to provide for carrying 2×4’s home from Lowe’s,  but I used it as a cat door for Espresso, my black Domestic Shorthair, so he could visit his litter box in the trunk.  He loved to ride shotgun with his front paws on the dashboard so he could see with those lovely golden globes where we were going.  Maggie, his canine counterpart, preferred lounging in the back seat on top of all the pillows, blankets, clothing, camping gear, food, and water jugs.  She had a twelve hour bladder, so I only needed to walk her morning and evening.  We managed.

My YMCA membership provided exercise, a hot shower every day, and a place to change clothes, which I kept clean at a Franklin Road laundromat.  It should have been doable, but things kept happening.  First somebody stole my tent while I was on my daily errands.  At least I had the foresight to empty it every day, stowing sleeping bag and other gear in the car.  That theft forced me to sleep in the vehicle, not nearly so comfortable but doable, tucked into my sleeping bag, a hefty Slumberjack.  My long-ago-husband and I had always enjoyed winter camping (no tourists, no bugs) so my sleeping bag was certified down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

October gave way to November, then December.  The campground closed for the winter, and I was on my own to find a place to park every night for shuteye.  First there was the requisite stop at Mill Mountain Coffee to slip in through the back door and fill my hot water bottle, preventive for ice-cube-feet syndrome.

My State Farm Insurance agent had a back-of-the-office covered carport; I began appropriating it nightly, especially on stormy ones.  One bitter cold evening, after pulling into my spot, I ran across the street to a Seven/Eleven to pick up breakfast makings.  I left the engine running to keep it extra warm to start the night off right.  Of course Maggie had to protest.  She wanted to go, too.  Barking and pawing at the window, she managed to step on the back door lock, which on the Acura automatically locked all four doors.  Now I had a car parked and running with a cat and a dog inside.  What to do?  Again I ran across the street, this time to ask for help.

There are times when I suspect God was watching out for us.  The local emergency squad team had also stopped there to coffee-up, and they came to assist.  One of the team was a young very thin woman who was able to slip an arm through the narrow opening I had left to provide fresh air for Maggie and Espresso.  She reached in, pulled up the slick knob-less locking mechanism, and all was saved.  What luck!

I managed to live through a bout of food poisoning and was feeling pretty puny, having also run out of vitamins.  Christmas was the loneliest ever, and in January the jet stream conspired to send sub-zero weather.  One bitter night, as I lay trying to fall asleep, the Slumberjack bag failed me.  I began to shake, and my teeth commenced chattering.  It was then that my sweet dog Maggie, rose from her accustomed place in the back seat and carefully climbed to the passenger seat where I had been spending my nights with the seat-back fully reclined.  She placed her paws carefully as she crawled forward, careful not to hurt me.  When she was satisfied she had just the right spot, she covered me with her hairy body and remained there the entire night, while slowly I warmed and slept.

Another January morning I awoke locked in the deposit of an ice storm.  We were frozen in all day waiting for the parking lot, where I had parked for the night, to be cleared.  There comes a time to admit when you are beaten.  It was time to go home.  Some beatings are worse than others.  Knowing the difference leans toward wisdom.

In retrospect I realize that was only one of many periods of homelessness.  No wonder it felt like something that could be challenged and overcome.  When in 1949 my Dad departed, family home foreclosed, mother carted off to asylum, that was homelessness of the nth degree.  Being sent away to boarding school where nuns stood in for otherwise occupied mothers and fathers, being sent on countless airplane rides between Dallas and Boston that attempted settlement with a mother who wanted to, tried o-so-hard to, but just couldn’t make a home for a misplaced daughter.  Choosing an ill-advised situation that created a home where all else had disintegrated, with the inevitable sad ending, all presaged that so predictable leave-taking through the Virginia countryside.  Giving up on the possibility of home is the bleakest homelessness of all.

Perhaps it is a blessing that as such days are lived into, there is no way to give attention to what is sure to come.  How then could we manage to place one foot before the other to grace an uncertain future?  But then, isn’t future by definition the very kernel of uncertainty?  That’s what makes the adventure so exciting—the possibility—the hope so satisfying.  Hope is the antidote to homelessness of heart, even through long cold winters of discontent.  Home must be where the heart is, homeless a non-sequitur.

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